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Is there foul play in Rio’s Covid-19 corruption probe?

. May 27, 2020
Is there foul play in Rio's Covid-19 corruption probe? Rio's Wilson Witzel denies any wrongdoing: "Imaginative narratives, hasty investigations." Photo: Carlos Magno/FP

To make things easier for local governments to deal with the Covid-19 pandemic, Brazilian lawmakers placed the country under a “state of calamity” in March, which lifts many of the controls imposed by strict public spending laws, allowing contracts to be fast-tracked and public bidding processes to be skipped. However, more cynical observers saw the move as a license to embezzle public funds. “If we have problems with the checks-and-balances systems when they are working, imagine what happens when they’re switched off,” said former Congressman Roberto Jefferson — who has already done time for corruption — in an interview with The Brazilian Report’s Brenno Grillo.

As four unmarked police cars parked in front of the Rio de Janeiro state government headquarters early on Tuesday, Mr. Jefferson’s predictions seemed to materialize.

Federal marshals seized computers and cell phones as part of an investigation into a corruption scheme operating within the state&#8217;s health department. Targeting Rio de Janeiro Governor Wilson Witzel, the police investigated <a href="https://brazilian.report/coronavirus-brazil-live-blog/2020/05/17/rio-health-secretary-sacked-following-corruption-allegations/">contracts for the construction of Covid-19 field hospitals</a> in the state, which had been fast-tracked and valued at USD 150 million thanks to the looser calamity rules. Law enforcement attempts to ascertain whether or not Mr. Witzel led a corruption ring to embezzle funds by way of overpriced purchases.&nbsp;</p> <p>As Brazilians watched the operation unfold, two thoughts crossed their minds. In a state riddled with corruption, it was about time that a high-profile politician was caught with his or her hand in the cookie jar. But at the same time, considering the warring forces at play, was this a political hit job?&nbsp;</p> <h2>Rio de Janeiro&#8217;s Operation Placebo</h2> <p>The police investigation was given the name Operation Placebo, and was authorized by the Superior Court of Justice. So far, feds have carried out warrants at 11 homes in search of evidence, and have confiscated Governor Witzel&#8217;s cellphone. He will also have to testify.</p> <p>It is undeniable that the operation is beneficial to President Jair Bolsonaro, who sees Governor Witzel as his biggest adversary in his home state of Rio de Janeiro. Calling the action &#8220;political persecution,&#8221; Mr. Witzel said the same would end up happening to all other state governors seen as &#8220;enemies&#8221; of the federal administration.&nbsp;</p> <p>&#8220;Imaginative narratives, hasty investigations. A minimum of care in the process would bring the necessary answers. Meanwhile, in the president&#8217;s family, the Federal Police shelve investigations. (&#8230;) <a href="https://brazilian.report/power/2019/01/18/flavio-bolsonaro-scandal-president/">Senator Flávio Bolsonaro was supposed to be arrested</a>,&#8221; he said.</p> <p>Addressing his supporters outside the presidential palace in Brasilia, Jair Bolsonaro praised the federal law enforcement on Tuesday&#8217;s operation. &#8220;I just heard from the press now, congratulations to the Federal Police.&#8221;</p> <figure class="wp-block-image size-large"><img loading="lazy" width="1024" height="683" src="https://brazilian.report/wp-content/uploads/2020/05/48877213178_2c806e2ca2_k-1024x683.jpg" alt="Rio Governor Wilson Witzel visits hospital. Photo: Philippe Lima/ASCOM-RJ" class="wp-image-38744" srcset="https://brazilian.report/wp-content/uploads/2020/05/48877213178_2c806e2ca2_k-1024x683.jpg 1024w, https://brazilian.report/wp-content/uploads/2020/05/48877213178_2c806e2ca2_k-300x200.jpg 300w, https://brazilian.report/wp-content/uploads/2020/05/48877213178_2c806e2ca2_k-768x512.jpg 768w, https://brazilian.report/wp-content/uploads/2020/05/48877213178_2c806e2ca2_k-610x407.jpg 610w, https://brazilian.report/wp-content/uploads/2020/05/48877213178_2c806e2ca2_k.jpg 2048w" sizes="(max-width: 1024px) 100vw, 1024px" /><figcaption>Rio Governor Wilson Witzel visits Covid-19 field hospital. Photo: Philippe Lima/ASCOM-RJ</figcaption></figure> <h2>Pro-Bolsonaro congresswoman tells the future</h2> <p>In a radio interview on Monday, Bolsonaro-supporting congresswoman Carla Zambelli <a href="https://brpolitico.com.br/noticias/zambelli-antecipou-operacao-da-pf-contra-governadores/">hinted</a> toward upcoming police operations against state governors. Despite Operation Placebo being kept confidential before its launch, Ms. Zambelli boasted that the Federal Police were poised to carry out investigations into state governors warring with President Bolsonaro.</p> <p>On Tuesday, Ms. Zambelli hastily denied that she had been informed of the operation ahead of time, saying that the &#8220;values&#8221; of Rio Governor Wilson Witzel meant she didn&#8217;t &#8220;require insider information&#8221; to know that an investigation was impending.</p> <h2>&#8220;I only want Rio de Janeiro&#8221;</h2> <p>The fact that such an operation took place in Rio de Janeiro is particularly emblematic, as the command of the state&#8217;s Federal Police has been at the center of allegations of malfeasance surrounding President Bolsonaro.</p> <p>When former Justice Minister Sergio Moro resigned from the cabinet in April, he accused his ex-boss of trying to illegally meddle in the Federal Police as a way of protecting his own family, particularly with regard to Rio de Janeiro.</p> <p>Mr. Moro revealed message logs between himself and the president, which showed Mr. Bolsonaro <a href="https://brazilian.report/power/2020/04/24/could-sergio-moro-bring-down-second-president/">putting pressure on the ex-Justice Minister</a> for control over the feds in his home state.</p> <p>&#8220;You have 27 superintendencies,&#8221; wrote Mr. Bolsonaro. &#8220;I only want one, Rio de Janeiro.&#8221;</p> <p>One of the president&#8217;s sons, Senator Flávio Bolsonaro, has been involved in corruption investigations since October 2018 regarding his time as a state lawmaker in Rio. President Bolsonaro has said, on a number of occasions, that his family is being harassed.</p> <p>During an April 22 cabinet meeting — the <a href="https://brazilian.report/power/2020/05/22/video-exposes-gross-mismanagement-in-bolsonaro-government/">footage of which has become the key piece of evidence</a> in a Supreme Court investigation into the president — President Bolsonaro said he tried to make changes to &#8220;security in Rio,&#8221; and that he would not wait for &#8220;them&#8221; to attack his family.</p> <p>&#8220;I&#8217;ve tried to change people from our security in Rio and, officially, I couldn&#8217;t. That&#8217;s over. I won’t wait for them to <a href="https://brazilian.report/newsletters/brazil-daily/2020/05/15/bolsonaro-i-wont-wait-for-the-feds-to-f-over-my-family/">f*** over my entire family</a> with shenanigans, or a friend of mine, because I can’t pull someone from security who belongs to the structure and is at the end of the line. That will change. If it doesn’t, then his boss will change. If [I] can’t change his boss, then the minister will change. Period. We’re not playing games here.&#8221;</p> <p>Soon after Sergio Moro&#8217;s resignation, the Federal Police Chief in Rio de Janeiro was transferred to Brasilia after just six months in the job.</p> <h2>The Bolsonaro-Witzel beef</h2> <p>Former judge Wilson Witzel was <a href="https://brazilian.report/power/2019/01/06/sao-paulo-rio-de-janeiro-governors/">elected to the Rio de Janeiro governor&#8217;s office</a> on the coattails of Jair Bolsonaro. Their right-wing, anti-leftist, tough-on-crime platforms converged during the campaign, and they began 2019 as allies.</p> <p>This changed over time, allegedly over criminal investigations in Rio and Mr. Witzel&#8217;s growing presidential aspirations.</p> <p>In November 2019, Mr. Bolsonaro verbally attacked the governor in public for the first time, accusing Mr. Witzel of being behind testimony suggesting links between the president and the 2018 assassination of Rio city councilor Marielle Franco.</p> <p>&#8220;[Sergio Moro] knew all about the issue with the governor who wanted my head, who wants to be president,&#8221; said Mr. Bolsonaro during the April 22 cabinet meeting. &#8220;[Mr. Witzel] needs to destroy me and my family. All the time [I was] living under pressure, the risk of search and seizure orders at my son&#8217;s house, where they would plant evidence.&#8221;

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José Roberto Castro

José Roberto covers politics and economics and is finishing a Master's Degree in Media and Globalization. Previously, he worked at Nexo Jornal and O Estado de S. Paulo.

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